Steve Nash retired yesterday. His career spanned most of my life as an NBA fan, but for some reason he has never managed to matter as much to me as he ‘should have’. But a time like this is an ideal opportunity to look back and gain some perspective on what Nash’s career has meant to the game.
I was never the biggest Nash fan. When he was at his best, I watched the game differently — dizzy from the ‘hero ball’ fix that growing up in the Iverson era had me hooked to, unable to really appreciate the the subtler things he brought to the game. I saw an over appreciated point guard as a poster child for reverse race equality. A player who was too nice, sort of flashy but not dominant enough, successful yes, but never enough to get over the spurs hump.
Well, that’s OK that they didn’t win the title, at least they were critically acclaimed!
Too often we judge players by championships, miniaturising and simplifying a career into stats and numbers but somewhere legacy is really about influence — what we will remember about players, who they influenced, how they contributed to the evolution of the game.
When Goran Dragic deploys the up-and-under, that’s Steve Nash. When Tony Parker runs three pick-and-rolls on the same possession, when Damian Lillard lets it fly because a foolish defender sneaks under a screen, when Rajon Rondo drives inside, circles back, and patiently finds a cutter, that’s also Steve Nash. When the Warriors go small, the Hawks go fast, and somebody somewhere torches a trap with a meticulously placed bounce pass to a careening giant, that too can be traced at least in part to Steve Nash.
It’s hard to remember now, but the Suns felt like a counter-cultural movement as much as a basketball team. They played fast, free and loose and threatened to subvert the time-honored tropes that defense-first, isolation basketball wins championships. Nash and the Suns attacked the entire ecosystem from the outside-in with pick-and-rolls and wide open threes.
So what do we really owe Nash? He revolutionised the pick and roll but part of the credit must go to Amar’e and the emergence of the rim running big. Nash played the point with an immense sense of control despite the constant frenetic pace D’Antoni’s system demanded, but was relatively unnassertive as a scorer. The Steph Curry as Nash comparisons don’t really resonate with me. Steph draws a lot from Nash, but his offensive dominance, improving defensive instincts and ability to play off the ball are markedly different.
But Nash with his constant dribbling in and out of traffic, pick and roll mastery and ability to conduct the team’s offense from a single point of control reflects more in Chris Paul (who admittedly studied tape of Nash pick and rolls obsessively) than in the modern ‘scoring point guards’ like Steph, Kyrie and Lillard.
And with the way the game is evolving today with the ball touching many hands in the quest to find the elusive ‘best’ shot, where the best teams have multiple players who can dribble, pass and shoot, the traditional point guard as ‘fulcrum on which the offensive attack rests’ may be on its way out.
The point guard as the ‘head of the snake’ is giving way to an offensive attack resembling a ‘Medusa head’ — when everybody on the floor is a threat, it becomes that much harder to game-plan for.
In essence, we may never see another Steve Nash, so now would be a good time to appreciate him one last time.
Players who can bound across the court, leap to unbelievable heights, or power through crowds of opponents can often find success at any level without technical refinement. Despite his underappreciated physical gifts, Nash couldn’t, so he had no other choice but to become technically perfect.
His practices have inhabited the curricula of so many coaches not because they were exceptional, but because they were attainable: a set of attributes that could be honed with the same meticulous repetition that made Nash into an eight-time All-Star. That’s why Nash has arguably had more influence in the player development industry than any other NBA great.
The hard work and technical excellence are great to learn from and aspire to, but they’re not necessarily unique to Nash, nor is he necessarily the apex to study in that respect. I would say Kobe surpassed Nash as a player to ‘study’ — his slaving over endless drills to acquire new weapons almost every offseason, playing soccer for footwork (as Nash did too), the countless hours spent emulating Jordan’s fadeaway, Olajuwon camp to develop a postgame as a late career insurance plan. As hard as Nash worked, it was Kobe who spent his career tirelessly crafting a game that had no discernible weaknesses.
But what separates them is that while Kobe invested in himself to wanted to carry his teams, Nash invested in his teams so they could carry him.
…Most of all it was his leadership style, how perceptive he was. For instance, Nash didn’t just play with Stoudemire. He wondered why Stoudemire behaved certain ways in certain situations, and what internal and external forces contributed to that behavior. He wondered how to make him happy and keep him happy. He tried to figure out every conceivable way to make Stoudemire better at basketball, both on and off the court. And a lot of times, it didn’t have anything to do with basketball. Amar’e Stoudemire was a complicated puzzle that Nash never stopped trying to solve.
This was a whole other level of thinking.
The Goran Dragic explosion that finally helped Nash beat the Spurs is one such example. It was Nash’s tutelage of Dragic that paid off as an undoubted turning point in the series and in the direction of the San Antonio franchise (Popovic credits that Suns series as the point where he began to shift the Spurs approach from a slow, post centric defensive team to the dynamic, hyper efficient and devastating basketball offensive improv machine that it is today).
The aspect of Nash’s game that really resonates with me are his leadership style and commitment to team chemistry and player improvement.
When Mike Conley talked about his mental clock that kept tabs of teammate touches and when to involve whom, you can see the direct influence of the Nash school of thought.
It is this idealised vision of the ‘empathetic pointguard’ that we hope will someday balance the ‘me against the world’ tendencies of transcendent talents like Westbrook.
Steve was always encouraging but never preachy, and he led by example in the truest sense of the word. He kept spirits high, never berated or scowled at teammates for missing shots (and ruining his stats), like you see some point guards do. He had an unbelievable ability to breed confidence in everyone around him, myself included. I know what a good point guard plays like because I saw one of the best every day, and that experience has helped me in evaluating countless other players.
He was an expert at team building, understanding basketball was more fun when everyone got along and was pulling for one another.
Steve Nash was one guy almost any player in the league would have loved to have on his team and it showed.
Congrats @SteveNash for all you’ve done for the game of bball..It was worth fighting to resume my career to have the chance to play with you— grant hill (@realgranthill33) March 21, 2015
He overcame a lot in his career, being injured, being short, being slow, and white and unathletic
When you’re short, white, slow and un-athletic, it pays to have your teammates helping you out as much as they can.
In an age where advanced metrics have helped us quantify almost every on court action, it may be what he did off it that matters most. We have yet to fully realise the real value of player personality beyond vague terms like Michael Beasley ‘locker room cancer’ and ‘glue guy’ get thrown around a lot in basketball discussions. Steve Nash the person, was a catalyst for success.
In his ‘Book of Basketball’ Bill Simmons wrote, “within a few weeks (of Nash’s arrival in Phoenix, everyone started playing unselfishly and getting each other baskets, like his magnanimity had seeped into everyone else by osmosis…and when you think about it, that’s the single most important way you can affect a basketball team.”
His contributions to still unmeasurable things like player development, chemistry and continuity are what have really made Steve Nash an all time great.
He showed that, contrary to the popular narrative, it is possible to be intensely competitive, supremely successful (back to back MVPs, wins and his pretty gaudy career numbers are nothing to scoff at) and still be the guy that everyone wants to play with. He played to win, played for his teammates, but most of all he played for the joy of the game. For Steve, his unselfishness wasn’t a weakness, it was his greatest weapon. Basketball wasn’t a competition, it was a celebration.
The After Party
In an interview I once heard Dirk talk about retirement: about how much preparation that goes into playing at a high level when you’re ageing — about how that get exhausting; and when that gets too much, when you get too tired to keep doing that — you retire.
Steve Nash never got tired: he fought till the very end, and through his great documentary ‘The Finish Line’ and was even nice enough to share his struggles and insecurities with the rest of us.
I think I can [still] have a great game. But I can’t do it more than once or twice a month.
It will always hurt that Phoenix Suns fans didn’t get the championship they deserved during our run. Yes, we had some bad luck but I always look back at it and think, I could’ve made one more shot, or not forced a turnover, or made a better pass. But I don’t regret anything. The arena was always sold out and rocking. It was the time of my life. Thanks, Phoenix.
Steve Nash officially retired yesterday, but honestly he’s been gone ever since he put on that #10 Lakers jersey. The reality of watching ageing stars whittle away into ashes is brutal — the afterimage repeats for so long, we forget how good they were, almost forget that they we’re good at all. I can hardly remember the fear Minnesota-era KG struck in opposing teams just by his ability and intensity, not his dirty veteran cheap shots and illegal screens learned at the Bruce Bowen academy. How devastating Amar’e used to be when i watch him 17 spot minutes every third game as an off the bench post scorer for the middling Mavs. I sadly feel Derrick Rose MVP season will be a distant memory replaced by an image of an inefficient high volume scoring guard with a broken shooting stroke settling for too many long 2s.
But somewhere I feel Nash got lucky. His brief LA stint seems like an anomalous footnote one can easily skip over. In reality he retired a Sun — all of Phoenix knew that…